In the fall of 2018, Rachel Paul was working at a convenience store in Canton when the business was robbed at gunpoint.
Paul wasn’t physically injured, but the incident left her badly shaken.
Little did she know at the time that it would lead to a new mission for her and her mother, Sharan.
In January, mother and daughter launched the Holding Hands Hotline, the area’s first community-based victim’s assistance program.
“No one would help her,” Sharan Paul recalled. “l learned how to do it to help her.”
“What we do is, we’re basically a referral service,” Rachel Paul said. “We have different agencies we can send people to, depending on people’s needs.”
To prepare, the Pauls each underwent 33 hours of victim-assistance training provided by the Ohio Department of Justice.
Rachel Paul said the hotline, which operates 24 hours a day, has received about 137 calls since it opened.
“We wish it didn’t happen that often,” she said. “We really don’t want any phone calls. It’s sad that people are victims.”
“Unfortunately, I think it’s way too successful because that means there are a lot of victims to talk to,” Sharan Paul said. “I’m glad they have somewhere to call to.”
She said Holding Hands is the first community-based advocate for victims of crime.
“There is an advocate for witnesses in ongoing trials, which is run by the prosecutor’s office,” she said. “There’s also one for domestic violence. We actually get a lot of domestic violence calls, but we refer them because they are specialized and are experts in what they do.”
The Pauls are assisted by about a dozen volunteers. Sharan Paul said the victims’ assistance training can be time-consuming.
“Just because you took training doesn’t prepare you to answer the phone,” she said. “Some of it is common sense. Some of it, you just have to have the experience in talking to people. We have other volunteers who help us at events. They talk to people and tell them what we do.”
Paul said Holding Hands also has forged partnerships with other organizations. For instance, Stitches for Stark County made them hundreds of hand-crocheted bracelets to hand out at the Massillon Fun Fest. In turn, Paul introduced Stitches for Stark County bracelets to another organization.
“The North Canton Lions Club gave us a large donation to help us get started,” Sharan Paul said. “We went up and volunteered for them during the Memorial Day Parade. There just aren’t enough volunteers to go around.”
In October, Holding Hands participated in the annual “Zombie Walk” in Massillon to raise money for hunger.
“I thought it was really essential to share our talents and volunteer with other agencies,” Sharan Paul said. “Let’s face it, together we’re all stronger.”
The frequency of calls the hotline receives can fluctuate. Rachel Paul noted that shortly after a machete-wielding man went on a robbery rampage in Tuscarawas and Stark County, the hotline received 16 calls.
Sharan Paul said she knows some of the victims, which included teenagers working in a store after school.
“It was horrible,” she said. “They caught him, but that just starts the problem for a lot of victims. We went to four pretrials in one week for two counties.”
Paul said that even when the legal process results in justice, it doesn’t bring resolution for crime victims.
“It changes your life for the rest of your life, even if they catch them,” she said. “It never stops for the victim. It all rushes back … It’s scary for a victim, and that’s why we do what we do.”
The Pauls recommend that people consider installing alarm systems and taking self-defense classes.
Holding Hands Hotline is a 501(c)(3), the result of it becoming a part of Sharan Paul’s master’s studies at the University of Toledo.
“I was going to drop out, but my professor suggested I make it a project; but he told me it had to be word perfect,” she recalled.
Paul’s professors also helped her with the 501(c)(3) application and a five-year business plan. They also connected her with a SCORE mentor through Small Business Administration, who had 20 years’ experience working in nonprofits.
Sharan Paul said the hotline operates on just $1,500 a year to cover the cost of the phone bill and for printing business cards and brochures. The organization is CPR and Narcan certified. The Pauls pay for their own training.
Sharan Paul said she’s also attended training for suicide prevention and youth-in-crisis management.
“We take any training we can that might help,” she said
Holding Hands Hotline has contacted every police department in Stark County except for Hills & Dales.
“We go to farmers’ markets, neighborhood groups, and we’ve been to four First Fridays,” Sharan Paul said. “I hope next year, we can get to every community.”
Since her own ordeal, Rachel Paul has been making a new path forward.
“I’m doing fairly well,” she said. “I just bought my first house. I’m doing a lot better. Sometimes, it still pops up. I get a little anxious at night. I don’t think it ever really goes away, but there are things to help.”
>> More info: contact Holding Hands Hotline accepts calls 24 hours a day at 234-458-1545.